War is Boring: It’s Time to Radically Remake the U.S. Navy Surface Fleet
There’s been some talk for many years about making officers specialists in a single field, much as many foreign navies do. Rep. Rob Wittman, chairman of the House Armed Services Seapower and Force Projection Subcommittee, is among the latest to broach the idea. I agree. For instance, an engineer would remain an engineer for his whole career, and would truly master the operation and upkeep of propulsion and auxiliary technology.
Sounds like a great idea to me.
Navigation and deck officers, who navigate and operate the ship.
Engineering officers, who run the ship’s systems.
Combat systems officers, who fight the ship.
Cross trained in all, but specialized in one.
Specialization is a solution in search of a problem. Mr. Holmes spends his time trying to advance a pet theory (with a little patting himself on the back) instead of looking at the real problems facing surface warfare.
Newly commissioned officers are installed as the heads of divisions—and typically find themselves as neophytes among experts. Learning to supervise a division and keep its affairs in order is a full-time job. Immediate administrative demands are also what obsesses higher-ups, who want to look good for the next inspection. Administration has a habit of crowding out training.
Enlisted folk—including chief petty officers, rightly described as the backbone of any ship’s crew—already do specialize. So do “warrant” and “limited-duty” officers, enlisted superstars granted their commissions. There is no reason the surface navy couldn’t apply that logic to division officers, handing over the administrative and technical functions now heaped on newly commissioned officers to these longtimers. Make experienced hands division officers.
Let’s be frank. Few shipboard divisions—of electricians, fire-control technicians or what have you—really need a newcomer from NROTC, the Naval Academy or Officer Candidate School to execute their missions with efficiency and aplomb. Assign divisions the requisite enlisted and ex-enlisted leadership and watch them flourish. Make seamanship and tactics the main purpose for newly commissioned officers and watch them flourish.
I don’t know how an a person can write those paragraphs and not draw the conclusion that our sailors are being killed by the administrative burden being placed on them, not that we need to take enlisted technical experts out of the plant and spaces and put them in the log room! We need to take a chainsaw to the vines of bureaucracy that are choking our ships to death!
And for the record, we tried doing exactly what Mr. Holmes suggested, 14 years ago:
It didn’t work, but don’t expect anyone to admit that anytime soon.
I spent a career in the RAN and can vouch for the benefit of specialisation. We were streamed as seamen, supply or engineering before we joined the Naval College. In my days only the engineers did university degrees. I still question the value of many of the more esoteric degrees being chosen by cadets at college. Not many directly relate to the performance of duty at sea. And I question the value of so many years study before they get to sea.
I joined aged 16 and completed two years high school at the college and a further year and half professional training which included a 3 month training cruise in an old destroyer doing astro nav, coastal pilotage, ship handling ie officer skills, and work in all the ship’s departments as if we were junior sailors ie what enlisted men do every day. We kept watches on deck, bridge, engine room, boiler room, ran the ship’s boats, fired the guns, worked the anchors etc all as totally unqualified new boys. It was great!
We graduated from college and then started full time at sea for the next 10 years or so.
Of most value was a further year at sea as midshipmen (we were cadet midshipmen before). This followed the same pattern as the training cruise but in further depth. The best part was being a junior officer, not really expected to know everything (and so regularly stuff up) but nevertheless expected to learn and pass the midshipmen’s board at year’s end. So expectations were that any sailor in the ship would be able to put us straight in their speciality. So a stoker would teach us to clean boiler sprayers or how to watch keep on an evaporator. A signalman would supervise us in flashing light, flag hoists, tactical radio etc.
WE went on to further shore training in operations and weapons before joining a ship to start qualifying for the bridge watchkeeping certificate ie capable of being the officer of the watch of a destroyer in all circumstances.
I worry that too much emphasis might be placed on overtraining too early. The value of being sent to sea with a good basic training but not complete, then watching and learning from the experts and living the navy way is superior to what may be proposed for the USN ie train much more before going to sea, throwing a junior officer in the deep on first sea duty end and expecting him to swim.
The year at sea prior to final operations and weapons courses allowed the junior officer to feel more comfortable with life at sea with lower expectations and no loss of face if we made mistakes or looked blankly when some unexpected circumstance arose.
So my recommendation would be go to sea early as a partly trained midshipman, come ashore for the full training and go back to sea to earn your stripes properly. Don’t over-educate, don’t over-train, Those are things you should be expected to do as you develop.
One final problem is that minimum manned ships have no spare bunks for trainees. Simple answer - make room and make sure future ships have generous allowance for trainees.